A great partnership is hard to find.
It’s for this simple reason that Jim McCann and Janet K. Lee, the creative force behind the all-ages, Archaia graphic novel “Return of the Dapper Men,” have joined forces once again for Image Comics’ “Lost Vegas.”
A densely-packed adventure filled with lush artwork and unique aliens, “Lost Vegas” follows the adventures of a roguish gambler named Roland who finds himself working off a debt owed to the luxury pleasure cruiser and gambling paradise known as Lost Vegas. Essentially a slave who spends his days disguised as a plain white male along with all the other captive aliens, Roland is ready to end his relationship with the mysterious gambling house and has devised a plan to break out of his prison along with the help of some fellow captives.
In this edition of THE COMMENTARY TRACK, CBR News reflects on the first issue with McCann, who explained how he likes to add re-read value to his comics, how he and Lee developed many of the characters and how a day of doodling lead to a new miniseries.
CBR News: For “Return of the Dapper Men,” you and Janet would get together and trade sketches and ideas back and forth until the project took form. Did “Lost Vegas” come about from similar meetings?
Jim McCann: It actually started with design sketches. We were brainstorming about a bunch of different characters and stories. She was out here [in Los Angeles] and was asked by a television studio to create some sample characters for children’s animation. She was doodling along and got off art-topic, so to speak, and we started talking and spitballing ideas of what we wanted to do next. One thing led to another and then we came upon “Lost Vegas.”
I’ve said in previous interviews that it was originally conceived as a daycare center on a space cruiser, which was a late, late, late night idea. When I woke up the next morning, it was like, “Wait, what?” Janet flew home and I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. We were both really in the mood to do something new and different and not all-ages, but still stretch our imaginations and stretch ourselves way out there. I’ve always loved Janet’s aliens; they were some of the first things I saw her ever draw. We’re talking 10-plus years ago, maybe 12. Those have always been in my head. I’ve been wanting to tell a heist story and, at the same time, I’d been in a very sci-fi mood. I thought to myself, “Wait, we had this idea of a casino in outer space — there you go!” So “Lost Vegas” came to be that way. It was born a little out of Janet doing great aliens and the idea of Roland. Think of Paul Newman in “The Hustler” along with a young Han Solo in his smuggling years wanting to be Danny Ocean [of “Ocean’s 11.”]
On page one alone, you’ve got several aliens, including Roland’s opponent Bisa. Was Bisa a character that came from the sketches or from the story?
In the script, I said, “We’re on a really out there, backwoods planet, somewhere very hot, kind of desert-y, something like the Mojave Desert, so whatever kinds of creatures would be [found] there.” She came back with Bisa, this awesome reptilian creature. You only see it barely on pages one and two, but she also designed the yurt, as far as the dwelling. She actually put a lot of time into thinking about that and what they’d wear, where they would get the clothing, what kind of creatures would inhabit that planet or be drawn to it or this area of this planet. She created the yurt, which gives us a light source.
She also gave it an old west feel. On the second page, I don’t know if you can see it, but it’s one of my favorite aliens, but there is kind of an old west bartender woman bringing twist, the pink lady. Right behind her is someone holding up a shotgun, then there’s a guy at the bottom collecting coins. She turned it into a western which I absolutely loved — Bisa’s even wearing a vest. To Janet’s credit, people notice this about her and it’s something I love. She loves the background characters as much as the foreground. I’ll get a text and she’ll have taken a picture of someone in the background and she’s like, “This is my new favorite alien.”
Pretty much all the other designs come from the characters, but also from a bit of their naming. Names are very important to me in symbolism. We talked a bit about race as far as planetary species [are concerned], and then others I would just say, “Go. Do. You’re amazing. Sketch away,” and she would come back with amazing, creative stuff.
You really get into the head of our protagonistin these first few pages. He’s a gambler, and a prisoner with a complicated escape plan in the works. Did you do any specific research into either area while developing Roland and the “Lost Vegas” story?
Oh, yeah. I did a lot. I watched almost every movie there was and is about gambling. I’m actually even friends with Don Schlitz, who wrote the song “The Gambler.” He was in Nashville, which is where I’m from, and I used to watch him play all the time at the Bluebird Cafe.
Anyway, I watched a lot about gambling, but I also watched and read as many things about cheating the system as I could. I watched all the special features I could on movies like “21” and “Rounders.” I really loved “The Sting,” which is a heist movie more than anything. I watched a lot of heist and caper movies. I watched “Cheating Vegas” and read a lot on the internet. I must be on all kinds of watch lists. [Laughs] I’ve used Google for so many different things on so many different books. I looked up all the different terminology, watched tutorials on how card sharks do it. On the flip side, I watched as much as I could about whales or high rollers. Because it was on sale at the used DVD store across the street from me, I even bought the first season of [the TV series] “Las Vegas” with Josh Duhamel and James Caan. I watched a few episodes of that and a few documentaries on there. And all the Ocean’s movies. The special features on there came in handy when we got onto the ship in “Lost Vegas.”
I read a lot of books by guys who cheated the system and won and tried to do as much research as I could. I also watched “The Hustler” and movies about main characters that have that cockiness to them. They don’t have to be card players, just carry themselves that way [for me] to get in their minds because I can’t pull that off. I could for maybe five steps, and then I’d trip.
At what point in the writing process were you doing this research? Was it when there was still just a germ of an idea, partway into the scripting process or kind of all over the place?
Yes. [Laughs] It’s all of that. I came up with the overall concept and then, in figuring out how to execute that and do it properly, is when I would start. Especially during the outlining stage, I would be [researching]. I take a pretty long time outlining and writing a first issue because that’s when I am doing the deepest research. I’ll write as I’m doing it and tweak as I go along, then change a few things. Come second or third issue, I’ll still stay in the moment by continuing to watch stuff. While the story won’t change, there might be jargon that I will switch up. I also went to Vegas three times, including once with Janet, who had never been.
Another aspect of “Lost Vegas” that you seemed to pay a lot of attention to are the word balloons and thought boxes. They’re in different styles and fonts, representing different sounding characters. Was that something you wanted to do from the beginning?
That was in the script. We really wanted to work with Dave Lanphear again, who we worked with on “Return of the Dapper Men.” If you look at that book, he gave each of the robots a different word balloon and texture. We knew that we wanted to bring that to this, because, this being a written and visual medium, Janet and I wanted it to have a different sound to it as well. That also goes for the narration. Originally, they were kind of high tech-looking, and I said I wanted it to be more like it was written on parchment paper. As you go through, you notice that Roland lives outside of all this. Everything is going on around him. At first, it was going to be like a recording, but I didn’t want it to be Star Trek-y, like a captain’s log. It should almost be in a journal. I doubt people would even carry paper and pen [in the future], but he’s kind of like Rick Blaine in “Casablanca,” running a jazz club in the middle of World War II, a guy completely out of his own time, but doesn’t care. Everything was done by choice and Dave really pulled that off.
I’m not kidding when I tell you that we played with those first three pages — specifically three, because there are four different types [of fonts] — there were 64 different fonts that Dave came up with to chose from. He’s a monster, he’s awesome.
Ink, a kind of mysterious amorphous blob who pals around with Roland, is a really interesting character. How did he/she/it come to be?
I was watching Skottie Young do commissions at a convention, brushing the excess ink off [as he drew]. I imagined, “What if Skottie Young’s ink blot formed together and came to life? What would it be like?” That was how Ink was born, and I told Janet that.
I knew how everybody fit in. You have your cast and, especially in a heist, you kind of have to have who plays what role. But also in a heist, those are just archetypes rather than actual characters. Everybody in Roland’s gang has their own backstory and motivation and we will see that play out. Roland even points out that they’re all in it for their own reasons. Ink is the one character that is a mystery, even to Roland. I kind of wanted that to be there. He is this mysterious thing and will sort of remain so. It’s kind of like that person or friend in your life that you’re not even really sure why you’re friends with them or how they came into your life. They just are. That’s a little bit what Ink is, especially in prison.
He is similar to the ship itself in that it’s mysterious, but he’s also the antithesis of the ship as Ink is helpful whereas the ship is not. I knew there would be a need for communication, and when I was trying to think of different ways, [Ink] was right there in front of me. Ink is his/her/its own character in and of itself. You’ll see more as the story goes. You see a bit in issue #1 that Ink has his own voice and character and actions.
From a design and story standpoint, what inspired the idea to have all of the aliens working the casino floor altered via technology to look the same?
We had this idea where we were trying to think of a ship full of basically the 0.0001 percenters of the galaxy. It would be a big diverse group and there would probably be bad blood between a number places, which you see in our own world when it comes to race. We get a little politically allegorical, but it’s still a comic book. We were trying to put ourselves in this galaxy. You don’t want to see your own kind enslaved. Do people even know that enslaved people are working the ships? Possibly? Probably? However, do you want to see your own people enslaved? Probably not. If they came across their enslaved enemies, would they make a snide comment? Lost Vegas is for luxury, for pure pleasure; it’s not a place where whatever’s going on outside the ship spills over into it.
There’s mention of the Post-God War, and Roland says just before they put on the collars that it doesn’t hurt him as much, that it eases their minds and the Orphans of Janus. If you notice, there are very few human-looking people anywhere on Lost Vegas. That is a clue, that is absolutely by design. In doing all that, we thought, “Let’s make them all the exact same person so the high rollers don’t have to think about anything. They don’t have to think about this server they just ordered a drink from, which they think of as ‘it’ and not a person.” In the future, we may have progressed and progressed and progressed, but when it comes to the least offensive and most common looking and common ground, it would be a generic white male.
The idea of the Post-God War was one that kind of burst off the page for me. Does it come up any more in the story?
There are things in there, like “Orphans of Janus” and “Post-God War” — there’s a lot of backstory within the world of “Lost Vegas.” There are also a couple other things like The Final Bet that are in there but not explained for flavor, history and a hint of things to come.
Just like in “Mind the Gap,” where you’re thrown right into the middle of the action and then things unfold around it, in “Lost Vegas” and even “Dapper Men,” that’s just how I like to tell a story. Hopefully by now, or if you’re new to reading work by me, you trust that I will get around to it because there’s no accidents. I’m aware of things and I like putting Easter eggs in there, and I love it even more when people find them. I put them in there for people to get curious, to keep you on your toes, so when it does come up, it drives you back to issue one or two. It’s not there to confuse you or anything like that; it’s there for a fuller experience, so when you read the whole thing again, you get the full experience. Also, you get your money’s worth in that issue. It’s not just, “I read issue #1: dispose.” You’re paying money for this, you want to go back and re-read this. Here’s the first mention. It’s almost like a first appearance of a character. I treat words that same way as a character, if that makes sense.
After returning to his cell, Roland contacts his fellow conspirators by way of Ink in a splash page that not only introduces Loria, but also shows what Ink can really do. There’s a lot of information being presented to the reader here — how did this image and idea come together?
That one was a crazy page. If I was every going to do anything slightly Grant Morrison-y, it would be this page. If you look, Roland is dissected. His eyes are separated from his body, his ears are separated, his hands, his waist, his feet. In a heist, you always have the scene where they do the walkthrough. In a film, you have the luxury of having the camera show you the different scenes, or they have a miniature where they walk you through. Here, Ink is able to do that. What’s funny is that the line work is just so insane and crazy.
We had no idea what this would look like colored, and Chris [Sotomayor] came back with this triply psychedelic watercolor work. It was insane. That’s totally, one hundred percent his contribution. Now anytime we have an “Ink Blink,” as it’s now referred to in the script for shorthand, it has this watercolor. That was all Chris Sotomayor and I’ve got to tip my hat to Soto on that one. He created that awesome effect.
Between Ink, Roland, Rinny and Loria, you’ve put together a group of characters that depend on each other for their combined goal and reward, but don’t necessarily like each other. That’s got to be an interesting dynamic to work with.
He’s pretty much looking out for himself on this, Roland is. He isn’t sure what they’ll do with the money and he’s not there to make friends. He acknowledges very freely that this isn’t a heist for a common cause. For him, it’s to get out of there. He’s a prisoner, he needs his freedom, he needs a ship and he needs money. When it comes to Loria, he knows better than to ask. With Rinny — Rinny’s crazy. It could be anything. He even offers up a couple possibilities for Rinny.
And Ink is Ink.
As the story goes along, because these aren’t all just archetypes, they are all characters, will we get glimpses or even more fleshed out views of what people want or need from this? Probably so. There are still wild cards out there. The whole group is made up of wild cards — you just have to hope nobody goes too far off the plan before it’s pulled off, including Roland himself.
While Roland’s going through his walkthrough of the plan, he happens to catch a performance by Kaylex that really captured the character’s movement. How did that go from idea to script to finished page?
That spread is pure Janet. I wrote the scene in the script as a spread, and I think it’s actually the first time I’ve done one of those two-page spreads where action goes across the pages. A lot of superhero comics have done it, but I haven’t. I was excited because I thought it was the only way to get the sheer scope and also the beauty and grace [across]. But really, I can say all that on paper, but: Janet Lee. That is all her. She choreographed the hell out of that and she did it beautifully. She watched Cirque du Soleil videos while drawing that, actually. Colorist Chris Sotomayor was just the icing on top of that beautiful cake with his coloring. Again, with Janet, where some people may have just kind of made it black with little bumps, if you look in the background of the crowd, she drew people. There are individuals. It takes my breath away and also makes me so happy and honored to have a partner in Janet.
While you’re layering the text with extra elements for people to come back to, Janet draws with such detail that it draws the eye in longer than some other comics.
Absolutely. She grows and changes and morphs in her artwork from project to project. I can stare at this and feel like I’m watching movement, feel like I’m watching the greatest show in the galaxy. Then there’s the two panels where they make eye contact. Even though there’s a massive theater between them, the way those two panels are staged, the way she did that, there’s a symmetry in the look, it’s so intimate. It feels like a comic book and yet it feels like a movie, voyeuristic, something we shouldn’t be seeing. There’s also no need for sound effects or people cheering. The art team nailed it.
As we hit the end of the first issue, we see that Roland’s walkthrough definitely doesn’t go as he planned. Where does he go from here?
We’ve got this voice talking to him in the ship, you’ve got Nighthawks mentioned, an Ensign mentioned, you have Roland’s collar blitzing out, you have a spaceship auction coming up, but at the very end, we’ve got Roland busted and strangely telling the truth. Where do we go from here? We go to all of those things, actually. All of those things that were mentioned, you will find out more about them. For Roland, this was a walkthrough. This issue he was trying a dry run. His collar fritzed out, he’s seen everything and now, is he going to get out of this jam in time? We will find out. You kind of have to expect that he does. You’ll get a glance of at least two more characters’ motivations, you will find out one of the dark secrets that Lost Vegas hides — I don’t mean the book, I mean the ship — and you will see Roland in action.
To find out how Roland gets out of his jam, check out “Lost Vegas” #2 by Jim McCann, Janet Lee and Image Comics on April 10.